The Greatest Novels That Were Never Finished

atkins-bookshelf-literature“Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies,” observed novelist James Baldwin, “… his death must always be seen as untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching.” But a writer’s death should also be considered untimely if he or she is in the middle of writing a novel that if completed might surpass one of their earlier works. The world will never really know. In most cases, editors stepped in to make revisions or annotations in order to publish the work, so readers could make their own assessments. Here are some of the greatest novels that were never finished.

The First Man by Albert Camus
Camus was working on his most personal novel, based on his childhood growing up in Algeria, when he was killed in a car accident in 1960; he was 46. The manuscript, which Camus hoped to be his magnum opus, was found in the mud, near the accident.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Dickens was halfway (6 out of 12 planned installments) through the novel when he died of a stroke in 1870 at the age of 58. The story revolves around two orphans, Edwin Drood and his fiancee, Rosa Bud. When he becomes of age, Drood plans to marry Bud and move to Egypt. Things get complicated when Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, a choirmaster and opium addict and ill-tempered Neville Landless both fall in love with Bud. Shortly after Christmas, Drood disappears. Jasper spreads a rumor that Landless killed Drood. But is Drood really dead; and if so, who killed Edwin Drood? Dickens left a clue; he wrote a letter to his close friend and biographer, John Forster, who recalled: “The story, I learnt immediately afterward, was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle; the originality of which was to consist in the review of the murderer’s career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell, to which his wickedness, all elaborately elicited from him as if told of another, had brought him.”

The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald had completed 17 of the proposed 31 chapters when he died in 1940; he was 44. The story was inspired by American movie producer Irving Grant Thalberg. Thalberg produced 400 films in the early years of Hollywood, earning the nickname, “The Boy Wonder.”

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway began writing this lengthy novel (800 pages) in 1946 and continued to work on it for the next 15 years, although he never finished it. Hemingway committed suicide in the summer of 1961 at the age of 61. During those 15 years, Hemingway wrote his most famous and enduring works, including The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, and Islands in the Stream. The Garden of Eden is focused on two newlyweds and a love triangle that develops with another woman during the couple’s honeymoon in the French Riviera. In the novel, Hemingway explores male-female relationships and androgyny.

The Ivory Tower by Henry James
The novel, a dark story about two dying millionaire former business partners and how they corrupted those around them, was not completed when James died in 1916, aged 72, of a stroke.

The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain
Twain was writing about the failings of organized religion in three different versions of the novel, but none were completed by the time he died of a heart attack in 1910 (he was 74.) Curiously, Twain was born soon after Halley’s Comet passed through the Solar System (and visible from earth with the naked eye) in 1835. Twain predicted he would die upon the comet’s return; and he died the day after the comet’s return.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Wallace was about one-third of the way (about 500 pages) through his last novel when he committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. Wallace had been working on the novel for about a decade. Like most of his novels, it is difficult to easily summarize; however, many chapters center on a number of IRS employees, living in Peoria, Illinois in 1985. In one of his writing notebooks there is a note that describes the plot of the novel: “an evil group within the IRS is trying to steal the secrets of an agent who is particularly gifted at maintaining a heightened state of concentration.”



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